White House goes on a defense offensive

Damage control aimed at countering accusations Bush lied leading up to war

November 17, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- After he finished a stint as spokesman for a crisis-ridden FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, Mark Pfeifle headed straight for the White House and the hottest Republican campaign going: President Bush's effort to beat back Democratic charges that he lied the country into war.

Pfeifle's specialty is damage control. And at the moment, there is more than enough damage surrounding Bush. With public alarm about the war mounting and public trust of Bush plummeting, the White House has gone on the defensive with a public relations push designed to discredit his opponents.

The operation has all the trappings of a political campaign -- including rapid-response statements targeted at opponents, using carefully compiled research. It is designed to stop what polls show has been a precipitous slide in Bush's credibility, as Democrats step up attacks on the president for his use of prewar intelligence.

It comes as Bush, who has worked to highlight the progress of the war and focus on positive developments in Iraq, is shifting toward a more combative approach. He is excoriating Democrats for what he calls "irresponsible" accusations that "are sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy."

Vice President Dick Cheney added his voice last night to the chorus of top administration officials working to amplify Bush's message.

"The suggestion that's been made by some U.S. senators that the president ... or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city," Cheney said in prepared remarks. "We're going to continue throwing their own words back at them."

In a rebuttal from the Senate floor, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the vice president and other White House officials should focus on providing answers instead of bashing the questioners. Reid accused Cheney of "playing politics like he's in the middle of a campaign" and said the administration needs to "stop trying to resurrect their political standing by lashing out at their critics."

White House aides are backing up the president by taking aim at Democrats who criticize Bush and news outlets that challenge the president. A series of public memos began Friday.

In the first, White House press secretary Scott McClellan singled out Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for his criticism of Bush's Veterans Day address, accusing the Massachusetts Democrat of spending more time criticizing Bush than he did Saddam Hussein. Another released this week offers a point-by-point rebuttal of a New York Times editorial about the administration's use of intelligence to justify invading Iraq.

"When charges are lodged against the administration that are inaccurate, we're going to aggressively move to set the record straight," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.

Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director, coordinates the memos along with rapid-response whiz Matthew McDonald and Michele Davis, a deputy national security adviser for communications. Wallace, who ran Bush's campaign communications operation, has tapped other party veterans including Pfeifle and Brian Walton, a former Commerce Department spokesman, to create what one aide called a "new product or tool" in the White House public relations arsenal.

Pfeifle has helped with other message initiatives important to the White House this year, including a campaign to promote Bush's Social Security plan amid signs that it was collapsing on Capitol Hill and being rejected by the public. He served as communications director for Doug Forrester, the New Jersey Republican defeated last week by Sen. Jon Corzine in the state's gubernatorial race. Most recently, he was dispatched to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to quell the Katrina uproar.

The team distributes old quotations from Bush's Democratic critics who had said Hussein was a threat. In some cases, they use excerpts from government investigations to argue that Bush was as much a victim of flawed intelligence as were lawmakers.

Democrats, responding with their releases from a Senate-based message center, dismiss the White House memos as damaging and misleading.

"It smacks of desperation when they have to ramp up a war-room-type operation to defend their policies in Iraq," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Democrats. The White House releases are an attempt to "manipulate, distort, distract and divide" from questions Democrats are raising about the war, he added.

Republican strategists said the quickening pace of Democrats' attacks on Bush left the White House no choice but to respond, despite the risk that the public might be put off by the defensive tone of the memos.

"It was showing up in polls that these people are damaging the president's credibility by saying he lied to get us into the war." said Charles Black, an operative who keeps in regular contact with the White House.

Republican lawmakers welcome the change in tone, say senior aides to House and Senate leaders, after months spent trying to publicize positive news about an unpopular war.

"We realized that we weren't aggressively covering the flank of refuting the negative," said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference, who invited Davis and Pfeifle recently to brief press secretaries.

Some Republicans think Bush must do more than rebut his opponents if he wants to repair the damage to his presidency.

"People in leadership make mistakes all the time," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia who said Bush and Cheney are "probably not helpful" to many Republicans facing tough re-election races. Bush should "admit it and get it behind," Davis added, and not try to "spin [his] way out of it."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Paul West contributed to this article.

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